Ife (Yoruba: Ifè, also Ilé-Ifẹ̀) is an ancient Yoruba city in south-western Nigeria. It is located in the present day Osun State. Ife is about 218 kilometres (135 miles) northeast of Lagos.
Mythic origin of Ife, the holy city: Creation of the world
The Yoruba locate their origines in Ife. The mythology awards several alternative creation stories. According to one creation story, Olodumare, the Supreme God, ordered Obatala to create the earth but on his way he found palm wine, drank it and became intoxicated. Therefore the younger brother of the latter, Oduduwa, took the three items of creation from him, climbed down from the heavens on a chain and threw a handful of earth on the primordial ocean, then put a cockerel on it so that it would scatter the earth, thus creating the land on which Ile Ife would be built.
Oduduwa planted a palm nut in a hole in the newly formed land and from there sprang a great tree with sixteen branches, a symbolic representation of the clans of the early Ife city-state. The usurpation of creation by Oduduwa gave rise to the ever lasting conflict between him and his elder brother Obatala, which is still re-enacted in the modern era by the members of the two clans during the Itapa New Year festival.
On account of his creation of the world Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba, while Obatala is believed to have created the first humans out of clay. The meaning of the word “ife” in Yoruba is “expansion”; “Ile-Ife” is therefore in reference to the myth of origin “The Land of Expansion”. Due to this fact, the city is commonly regarded as the cradle of not just the Yoruba culture, but all of humanity as well, especially by the followers of the Yoruba faith.
Oduduwa had sons, daughters and a grandson who went on to found their own kingdoms and empires, namely Ila Orangun, Owu, Ketu, Sabe, Popo, Oyo and Benin. For example, Oranmiyan, Oduduwa’s last born, was one of his father’s principal ministers and overseer of the nascent Edo empire after Oduduwa granted the plea of the Edo people for his governance. When Oranmiyan decided to go back to Ile Ife after a period of service in Benin, he left behind a child named Eweka that he had had in the interim with an indigenous princess. The young boy went on to become the first legitimate ruler of the second Edo dynasty that has ruled what is now Benin from that day to this. Oranmiyan later went on to found the Oyo empire that stretched at its height from the western banks of the river Niger to the Eastern banks of the river Volta. It would serve as a powerful African state prior to its collapse in the 19th century.
Ife is well known as the city of 401 or 201 deities. It is said that every day of the year the traditional worshippers celebrate a festival of one of these deities. Often the festivals extend over more than one day and they involve both priestly activities in the palace and theatrical plays in the rest of the kingdom. The most spectacular festivals demand the King’s participation. These include the Itapa festival for Obatala and Obameri, the Edi festival for Moremi Ajasoro, and the Igare masqueraders, and the Olojo festival for Ogoun. During the festivals and at other occasions the traditional priests offer prayers for the blessing of their own cult-group, the city of Ile Ife, the Nigerian nation and the whole world.
Today a mid-sized city, Ife is home to both the Obafemi Awolowo University and the Natural History Museum of Nigeria. The citizens are of the Yoruba ethnic group, one of the largest ethno-linguistic groupings in Africa and the African Diaspora. (The population of the Yoruba outside of their homeland is said to be more than the population of Yoruba in Nigeria, about 35 million.) Ife has a local television station called NTA Ife, and is home to various businesses. It is also the trade center for a farming region where yams, cassava, grain, cacao, cotton and tobacco are grown.
The Oòni (or oni, king) of Ife claims direct descent from Oduduwa, and is counted first among the Yoruba kings. He is traditionally considered the 401st spirit (Orisha), the only one that speaks. In fact, the royal dynasty of Ife traces its origin back to the founding of the city more than ten thousand years before the current era.
The current Ooni, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II, Ooni of Ife, styled His Imperial Majesty by his subjects. The Ooni (born October 17, 1974) is a Nigerian accountant and the 51st Ooni of Ife. He succeeded the late Oba Okunade Sijuwade who died on July 28, 2015.
The Ooni had always been prominent among the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s company of royal Oba, being regarded as the chief priest and custodian of the holy city of all the Yoruba. Following the formation of the Yoruba Orisha Congress in 1986, the Ooni held an international status which the holders of his title hadn’t had since the colonisation by the British invaders.
Artist depicted important people with large heads because it was believed that the Ashe was held in the head, the Ashe being the inner power and energy of a person. The rulers were also often depicted with their mouths covered so that the power of their speech would not be too great. Common people were not idealized, and even in depicting kings and queens, the image could more so idealize the office of the ruler.
Ile Ife was a settlement of substantial size between the 9th and 12th centuries, with houses and streets featuring potsherd pavements. In former times, the palace of the Ooni of Ife was a structure built of authentic enameled bricks, decorated with artistic porcelain tiles and all sorts of ornaments.
Ifè is still known worldwide for its ancient bronze, stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached a peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400 CE. After this period, production declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin which, like the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, developed into a major empire.
Bronze and terracotta art created are significant examples of realism in African art before colonization and destruction by Europeans.
In his book, “The Oral Traditions in Ile-Ife,” Yemi D. Prince referred to the terracotta artists of 900 A.D. as the founders of Art Guilds, cultural schools of philosophy. These guilds may well be some of the oldest African centres of learning to remain as viable entities in the contemporary world.